Defense Secretary Mark Esper scrutinizes a Navy in flux as it prepares for China

Noble Horvath

“I’m not going to lie — I was scared,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Hayley Craig, recounting her eight trips into the ship to fight the fire. “I think everybody was. You couldn’t really see nothing. It was incredibly hot. I didn’t know your body could take that much heat.” […]

“I’m not going to lie — I was scared,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Hayley Craig, recounting her eight trips into the ship to fight the fire. “I think everybody was. You couldn’t really see nothing. It was incredibly hot. I didn’t know your body could take that much heat.”

The price to fully renovate the ship is not yet clear, but its replacement will probably cost several billion dollars, based on comparisons with similar-size ships.

The Bonhomme Richard’s uncertain future is among the troubles the Navy has faced as the service attempts to change the way it fights, deploys and organizes.

Recent challenges include two ship collisions in the Pacific that killed 17 sailors in 2017, a corruption scandal in which several Navy officers were convicted of accepting bribes from a Malaysian defense contractor known as “Fat Leonard” Francis, and questions about the service’s ability to keep ships ready while meeting demands for deployments.

The service is a key part of the Pentagon’s plan to reorient itself after nearly 20 years of counterinsurgency wars, with new high-tech aircraft, unmanned vessels and weapons planned as China becomes the primary focus of the military’s agenda.

But the Navy in some ways has lost control of its future.

The Navy has long touted its goal to expand to 355 warships to meet U.S. needs, and President Trump has touted a similar plan for at least 350. But Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper has scrutinized the Navy’s target, rejecting the service’s shipbuilding plan and launching a review this year by Deputy Defense Secretary David L. Norquist to assess options.

Esper, in a three-day trip to California last week, declined several interview requests from reporters traveling with him, including about the naval force study. He has kept a low profile with the news media in recent weeks, with administration officials saying that Trump has considered firing him since their disagreement in June about the president’s desire to use active-duty troops to respond to protests across the country over racial injustice and police violence.

But Esper’s public remarks reveal some clues to what could lie ahead.

The defense secretary, speaking Wednesday at the Rand Corp. think tank in Santa Monica, Calif., said that Norquist’s study was recently completed and that it considered a “wider, more ambitious range of future fleet options.”

Officials from the Navy, Marine Corps and Joint Staff and outside advisers examined what ships are available and what vessels are needed to retain dominance given China’s modernization plans, Esper said. Then they launched war games to see the strengths and weaknesses of each potential combination of ships.

“The results are a game-changer that reflect a good deal of serious work and effort based on facts and data,” Esper said.

Navy Secretary Kenneth J. Braithwaite said in a statement after Esper’s speech that “355 ships are the minimum to which the Department of the Navy should be aiming” and that he has been working with Esper and Norquist to identify how best to achieve that objective.

But how those ships are defined could change in a significant way.

Esper, speaking to sailors aboard the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson off the coast of California on Thursday, said the deployment of unmanned vessels will make reaching the 355-ship goal possible. That amounts to a shift in what the Pentagon and Congress consider a warship.

“Unmanned will enable us to grow the United States Navy well beyond 355 ships,” Esper said. “It will add more lethality, survivability, capability, et cetera, to the United States Navy and indeed to the joint force.”

Despite the changes, aircraft carriers will remain a centerpiece of the fleet, Esper said. His visit to the Carl Vinson highlighted some of the plans: The ship recently underwent 17 months of upgrades to allow it to fly F-35Cs, and it will be the first carrier to deploy overseas with the jets next year.

The jets are seen as the centerpiece in many future formations in the China-centric approach. While they do not carry as many weapons as other strike aircraft, such as the F/A-18 Super Hornet, they are harder to see on radar and collect more intelligence with their sophisticated sensors.

The ship’s commanding officer, Capt. Matthew Paradise, said in an interview that the changes to the Carl Vinson include the adoption of reinforced jet-blast deflectors capable of handling the F-35’s larger engines, new computers to assist in F-35 logistics and a renovated area near the hangar bay where lithium ion batteries used on the aircraft are stored and charged.

“We’re going nice and slow and making sure that everyone is learning the new jet, and getting the band back together for the first time in the work-up cycle,” Paradise said.

Esper flew to the Carl Vinson in the back seat of an F/A-18 fighter and then met privately with naval officers involved in the F-35’s integration.

On Friday, Esper toured the charred Bonhomme Richard in rubber boots, a mask and a hard hat. His spokesman, Jonathan Rath Hoffman, said one concept Esper is considering is the deployment of the Marine Corps’ F-35s on amphibious ships such as the Bonhomme Richard, complementing the aircraft deployed aboard carriers in an unconventional configuration.

Whether that future includes the Bonhomme Richard is another story.

After touring the ship, Esper thanked sailors on the pier for their efforts to save the ships. “We’re going to have a Bonhomme Richard for sure,” he said.

But Hoffman said afterward that Esper was expressing to the crew his hope that the ship will survive. The ship’s future, Hoffman said, is still unclear.

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